Generations: Does History Affect our Mental Health?

by Eric Sharpe

No suspense here: Yes, history effects our mental health – or more specifically, our generational history and culture impacts our mental wellness. The simplest explanation of this is that social norms and culturally acceptable behavior is shaped by history. If you were a kid growing up during a time when the world was in shambles, like during the Great Depression, being upset about what toy you didn’t get for Christmas was not tolerated.  Feeling stressed or depressed?  If you grew up in a time where everyone had to be “tough”, then seeing a counselor or a psychiatrist was proof of weakness.  Medication for depression?  Virtually unheard of.

 

But would such history result in mental health problems, or would it strengthen a person’s mental fortitude to enable them to handle stress as adults?  Would an opposite, “get-in-touch-with-your-feelings” generation have better coping skills as adults?

 

This article is about defining each living generation in general terms (Sociology = groups; not psychology = the individual) in order to understand the dynamics of how their unique histories may have played a role in the relative mental health of each – then and now. Please keep in mind – we are dealing with generalities.  “One size” doesn’t fit all.

 

What Defines Your Generation??

Though generations are defined by different demographers (people who study population) in different ways, the general time brackets, and the history which define those brackets of the generations of the last century are as follows:

 

1929-1945:  the Silent Generation.  (In 2018, aged 73 to 89)

This generation began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and ended with the conclusion of WWII. The name of this generation refers to the period of time they grew up – during the Great Depression and WWII.  As kids they were living in the shadow of some pretty heavy history.  They were raised to work hard and be satisfied with simply having a roof over their heads. They were to be seen, not heard (especially their complaints). The children of this generation watched the previous period of historic economic growth evaporate.  Having food on the table for many was a daily concern.  The economy was in shambles – and it happened quickly. Unemployment reached 25% by 1933.  Their generation married young and planned for their future.  A Fortune Magazine story in 1949 subtitled “Taking No Chances” indicated that the first question college graduates were asking at job interviews at that time was about pension plans. They are known for being disciplined, cautious, dedicated to work – the same job to retirement, and dedicated to tradition.  Marriage is for life, divorce is not acceptable.

60-64 Suicide Rates BY AGE.jpg

Their Mental Health

Suicide rates amongst the Silent Generation have been lower across the decades than any other on record. Perhaps in this case, history helped this generation as their experiences may have led to resilient mental strength.  It can be imagined that as these children emerged from the worst period in modern American history, as adults, any critical personal issue they faced may have been easier to handle.  Additionally, the cultural norms of this generation demanded dedication to tradition.  Suicide was simply not something they were allowed to consider.

 

 

1946-1963:  the Baby Boomers.   (In 2018, aged 55 to 72)

This generation clearly began with the “baby boom” beginning in 1946 (after WWII), and arguably, ended with the assassination of President Kennedy, which was also known as the year America’s “innocence” was shattered. Boomers grew up in a period of unprecedented economic growth in the U.S. and were the first generation to grow up with television.  But as with all generations, Boomers were a product of their environment in a most pointed manner.  The period of history in which they grew up was called the “Return to Normalcy.”  After a decade long Depression followed by a long and horrible war, people in the U.S. wanted to feel “normal” (and look normal), even if they really didn’t.  This was the era where most people wanted to live and display the normal and perfect life – just like everyone else, in perfect conformity.  And all of this was reinforced by TV which included the “perfect family” portrait in TV shows and commercials where they were “told” what to do (and buy) to keep up with everyone else.

 

The teens of this time saw things differently.  They saw the truth behind such veils and how the “perfect family” didn’t really exist.  They became disillusioned by what they felt were the lies of a modern society and became eager to rebel against that hypocrisy. As Boomers got older in the 1960’s, they became hippies, environmentalists, and anti-government pacifists and were the first generation to drive a culture of anti-conformity. This was also the generation that fought the Vietnam War. They are known for being: save-the-world revolutionaries of the 60’s; also known as the “me” generation; the first divorce generation, where divorce was accepted as a tolerable reality.  This was also the first generation plagued by illegal drug use.

 

Their Mental Health

Suicide rates amongst Baby Boomers as teens were very low but began to surge as they became adults in the 70’s and ‘80s. Boomer suicide rates have outpaced the national average in recent decades by at least 100%. According to TheWeek.com, between 1999 and 2014, “There was a notable surge among Americans 45 to 64 with the suicide rate for women in that age group jumping 63 percent and men 43 percent.” According to a 2014 Washington Post article, “Boomer men are now 60 percent more likely to take their own lives than men their age who were born in the 1930s – or roughly men of their fathers’ generation [the Silent Generation].”  It all begs the question: What is happening to Boomers?

 

War

There is never a single driving factor to look at to answer such questions but there are a few key indicators that may be at play.  A full 7% of male Baby Boomers served in the Vietnam War, which some historians call America’s “horror story” war.  What these soldiers saw was unparalleled terror-like tactics by the enemy while fighting a war many had been required to fight via the draft.  As they returned to a rather harsh homecoming, they discovered little sympathy for what they’d experienced.  In 2014, the Veterans Administration reported that “approximately 65 percent of all Veterans who died by suicide” fought in the Vietnam War. That’s history driving mental health issues.  PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) wasn’t even recognized as a mental health disorder until 1980. The rates of suicide for veterans in general is upsetting, hovering around 40 per 100,000 (compared to the national rate of 13.26).  That amounts to 22 veteran suicides a day in 2016. Even more shocking is that Montana veterans suicide rate is 79% higher than the national average for vets.

Vet Losses

 

Their Upbringing

As kids and teens, Boomers social concerns were largely dismissed by parents who’d fought WWII.  “Trivial” childhood complaints made little sense in that context.  Boomer kids certainly were never encouraged to share their feelings, let alone seek help in dealing with them.  Kids carry their coping skills, or lack of, with them throughout their entire lives unless such skills are actively developed. A 2014 Washington Post article may have hit a key driver of suicide on the head, pointing out that suicide rates in this generation may be driven by “a complex matrix of issues particular to a generation that vowed not to trust anyone older than 30.”

Broken Dreams

Another possible driver of depression and suicide amongst Boomers is that they have come to realize that the optimism of their goals as young revolutionaries has not only faded, but has been somewhat crushed. With divorce being acceptable for the first time in this generation, it is also thought that the rise in divorce rates amongst them may be a contributing factor as well.  Further, Boomers tend to divorce later in life.  Divorce rates amongst those 50 years old and older rose nearly 110% from 1990 to 2015 (Pew Research data).

 

 

Text it to me2

1964-1983:  Generation X. (In 2018, aged 36 to 54)

Bookended by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the end of the Age of Industry, this was the last generation of the Industrial Age, and the first to embrace the Age of Technology.  Historians refer to the 60’s as the “harshest of decades” which created harsh realities often difficult to comprehend. X’ers were also referred to as the “Slacker Generation,” so called for their seeming lack of faith in … well, everything.  The entire period from which this generation emerged was marred by disturbing developments in history; from the murder of a President, through the Vietnam war, mass protests, several political assassinations, riots in major cities, the Watergate Scandal, the horrible economics of the 1970’s, and an age where pollution created something called “acid rain” (if you’re too young to remember it, Google it!). How could anyone expect this generation to be less than depressed considering their history?

 

This generation wore their dissatisfaction on their flannel sleeves, not afraid to let anyone know how disaffected they were. Gen X was also distinguished for being undistinguished.  They weren’t known for leading a social revolution or fighting a brave war. This was also the generation that for the first time would earn less money than their parents.  In response to their negative upbringing, they were eager to be better parents than their own.  This created an often overly nurturing and overly involved relationship with their kids, sparking the often disastrous “parent as best friend” trend. Despite all the negatives though, this was a fiercely independent and creative generation from which many tech innovations of today have been created. They are known for being: cautious, skeptical, self-reliant and often individually isolated; a generation that averages seven career changes in their lifetime and the first to take on deep debt.

 

Their Mental Health

Generation X in comparison to Boomers have not seen equivalent rates of suicide in adulthood, but as teens, they took their own lives at a rate 30% higher than Millennials of the same age range reaching nearly 19 suicides per 100,000 in the late 90’s.

 

Early Life Troubles

This was the generation that somewhat had to raise themselves.  As their Baby Boomer parents were career oriented and far more open to divorce, the term “latch-key kids” emerged referring to kids who had to let themselves in to an empty home after school as they were often children of divorced or career-driven parents.  As kids, growing up in the first wide-spread cases of “broken homes” (again, we’re talking generalities here), suicide rates amongst Gen X pre-teens (10-14) rose higher than any other previous generation, nearly twice the rate of Boomers when they were teens, and 4x the rate of Silent Generation teens. Their shared history of an isolated upbringing as latch-key kids coupled with their general disillusionment at early life in general may well explain the trend that lasted into their teen years.

 

Debt

But after a rough teen life and early college years where rates peaked at 28 per 100,000, it seems Gen X’ers who survived their educations found some sense of stability.  Suicide rates declined dramatically for Gen X at the turn of the 20th Century, dipping below 24/100k for those aged 20 to 34, but that stability didn’t last. A direct correlation can be drawn between the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and a rise in suicide rates among this and other older generations, including Boomers. Boomer rates of suicide spiked during the recession but their rates had begun to increase well before it hit.  Gen X’s rates though are seemingly linked to the recession, rising 30% during the period from 2008 to 2014.  According to a Boston Globe article, “They [Gen X] were the hardest hit generation during the Great Recession, losing almost half their wealth when the stock market slumped.”  Financial instability is a major driver of depression amongst adults, and Gen X is the most financially unstable generation ever to emerge.  This is also the first generation where retirement security is not a certainty.  How this affects X in their elder years is frankly a serious concern.

 

Loneliness

Additionally, X’ers’ upbringing and shared culture of self-reliant cynicism may have resulted in a generation of isolated adults who insist on “going it alone.” Loneliness is another big driver of depression. Though this is a generation a little more comfortable in seeking professional help, their individualistic nature may be keeping them from doing so. The early entrants into this generation born in the 1960’s, coupled with Baby Boomers born in the early 60’s, have been leading a dark statistic of very high rates of suicides consistent across the years.  It continues today.

 

 

1981-2001:  Millennials.  (In 2018, aged 17 to 35)

Millennials are the first fully tech generation. Arguably, the Industrial Age (not to be confused with the Industrial Revolution) came to a close in 1983, which was a benchmark year for technology, and thus, the beginning of the Age of Technology.  In 1983, the first personal computer was introduced along with the first truly mobile phone, and the first version of the “Microsoft Word” processing program.  This is the period where the formative years of the “.com” boom began.

 

As Millennials moved forward into the 1990’s, a decade of unprecedented economic growth and optimism took place.  Though some of then may remember rotary dial phones and cassette players, they have never known a world without computers.  Millennials were also the kids being overly nurtured by their “best-friend” Gen X parents and as a result, they are more optimistic, encouraged, and… unrealistic. They have been repeatedly told that they are special, and they expect the world to treat them that way.  This is the generation where every kid got a trophy and the scores at soccer games weren’t kept – everyone was a winner.  They were also known as having to largely be re-trained when entering the work force as they were, and perhaps still are, prone to take a lot of personal time off, expect constant praise from the boss, and fully believe they should be placed in a leadership position shortly after their first internship. Millennials are also the first generation to return home in droves after college.  In 2017, 22.9 million people aged 18-34 (the Millennial Generation) lived with their parents – some 34% of all Millennials.  The highest numbers ever recorded in that age group.

 

Though considered very selfish and self-centered, and labelled by one magazine as the “Wuss Generation,” keep in mind, this is the generation that fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with honor. They are known for being; confident, idealistic, loyal to their friends, overly scheduled – every hour of the day needs to be filled, enormously pressured to perform well, more likely to have a child, (25%) than be married (17%), and demand immediate information/processing.

 

Their Mental Health

Though Millennials are really the first generation to have never faced the stigma of discussing mental health issues, this generation is currently in mental health trouble.  At first, Millennials appeared to have reversed the trends set by Gen X’ers in that they had low rates of suicide through their teens and early 20’s.  But now, the late entrants into the generation, (those born in the late 1990s) are leading a dark trend.  From 2007 to 2015, the suicide rate of 17 year old girls has risen 115%. 17 year old boys; up 41%. Millennials’ rates of suicide have also begun to drive upwards as they hit their late 20’s, outpacing X’ers when they were in their late twenties.

 

Shattered Idealism

It may be those early years of mental wellness from being bolstered, or even sheltered, by a culture of support, inclusion, and “everyone gets a trophy” treatment that has given way to reality.  As the last of this generation is just getting ready for college while those born in the early 80’s are nearing mid 30’s, a real fear that Millennials have begun to “lose their way” in life is present in the mental health industry. Dealing with a harsh world where they, as a generation, were sheltered from it as kids may be the key driving force behind the current and steep increase in mental health problems for them. Psychology Today reports that Millennials have the highest levels of clinical anxiety, stress, and depression over any other generation at the same age. Further, “Suicide rates amongst young adults have tripled since 1950 and are the second most common cause of death among college students.”

 

Dealing with Failure

One blogger may have hit the problem on the head, writing: “…when I look at Millennials I don’t see a generation entitled to success, we are obsessed with it… We don’t know how to fail.” Unfortunately, failure is part and parcel of life.  For every single winner in a race, or to get a job, there are ten times (or more) “losers.” Of course, those who don’t win are not losers.  But perhaps that is the problem.  Having never faced “losing” at anything, it can be assumed that Millennials were not prepared for that reality. The whole of this generation is now firmly fixed in the reality of a world that does not seem to value them or their efforts.  Perceived failure is a relenting driver of depression.

Unemployment

Millennials also faced something that an entire generation hadn’t felt since the Great Depression – dramatic unemployment during the Recession which began in 2007 – perfectly timed for many of them as they were graduating from college. Writing in his book “All Groan Up,” Paul Angone summed up the atmosphere: “The job hunt has become the Millennial version of the Hunger Games.” Even as the fallout from the recession faded, in 2014, 40% of those unemployed were Millennials.  Living with their parents is likely not a choice.

 

Trends of the Future?

A growing amount of research is showing that young workers are increasingly adding mental health days off from work, and young women are particularly at risk for mental health problems.  Worse, this generation may be committing suicide at an even higher rate than assumed.  Many deaths in this generation are from opioid overdoses, (prescription and heroin). Such deaths may be unintentional, yet are “death by self-infliction” nonetheless. The opioid crisis is hitting this generation the hardest as 25-34 year olds’ rate of overdose from heroin began to spike in 2000, rising almost 500% by 2015 according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Alcohol-induced deaths doubled for the same age group from 1999 to 2015.  Further, considering the rate for veterans is particularly high, and that the Millennials were largely the generation which fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, as these vets age, total generational suicide rates will likely increase. Some mental health professionals fear a Millennial epidemic is on the horizon.

 

 

2001- 2020?:  Centennials.  (In 2018, aged 0 to 16

The Millennial Generation is marked by two decades of peace and prosperity that ended on 9/11, a day that changed history and the landscape of American culture.   This is the landscape the Centennial Generation (as-in born near the turn of the Century) was welcomed  into.  As we are uncertain what historical benchmark may define the end of this generation, we’re still waiting to see its official end year. Centennials have thus far grown up in a very scary and often harsh society – one in which the United States fought its longest war, has been on high alert against terrorist attacks, and witnessed the most politically vicious and volatile period in American history… which continues.

Technology for this generation is not a consumer item, it is simply how life works. This generation doesn’t know that the phrase “dial a phone number” comes from the old rotary phone, and have no idea what a VHS player is.  So far, they are known for being; the first true digital natives, more realistic, not idealistic, more grounded in their expectations, hyperaware multi-taskers.

 

Their Mental Health

12-14 Suicide Rates BY AGE

Thus far, the numbers look very scary.  Though the oldest of this Generation is only about 16 years old, suicide rates amongst 12-14 year olds in 2015 were 150% higher than the same age group in 2007.  Though boys historically are more prone to suicide, it is girls who are driving this disturbing trend as rates amongst this young demographic rose 250% from 2007 to 2015.  Even more disturbing.  In 2007, only 2 twelve year olds took their own lives in the U.S..  Since 2007, that number has steadily and dramatically increased with 26 twelve year old kids committing suicide in 2015. It is perhaps simply a coincidence that Facebook first launched in 2007.  It may be a coincidence that social media bullying has been at the heart of some of the most devastating stories of kids taking their own lives. As this generation has yet to become fully realized, drawing such conclusions are unwarranted, yet certainly worthy of noting.

 

The Drivers Effecting Everyone:

Biology & Neurochemistry

Our shared history drives our shared culture and undoubtedly affects our mental health.  But this article is not intended to fully explain the causes of mental health problems and suicide.  Depression is a biological phenomenon that should not be assumed to be driven solely by the numbers of sociological factors previously mentioned. Depression has been clearly linked to “problems or imbalances in the brain, specifically with the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine” (from GracePointWellness.org). Some believe that social factors certainly contribute, if not outright cause such imbalances, but how this imbalance begins and takes root is still unknown.  It is not the focus of this article to discuss whether such imbalances are driven by sociological factors or the other way around.  Though external factors can drive a depressed person further down the pit, there are many cases where depression grabs hold of a person whose life experiences simply don’t fit that of a depressed person.

 

Take all of this… then add it to the unique shared culture of Montana, and you have an epidemic.

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